Ever held your nose and been doused in the river at an old-fashioned revival meeting? Sitting through the faith-based musical revue Crossin' Over offers a similar immersion, and you don't even have to get wet. Originally staged by the Black Rep last season at the Edison Theatre, Crossin' Over has been born again at the Grandel. The fervor is real, the passion persuasive.
Conceived and directed by Ron Himes, this high-voltage piece comprises five musical suites that chronicle the history of Africans in America. Act One deals with subjugation and enslavement. The "African" and "Captivity" suites move the story from Africa to the cotton fields of the American south. There's an unaccounted-for time jump during the intermission, then Act Two resumes the story in the early twentieth century. The "Thomas Dorsey Suite" pays tribute to the so-called father of gospel music, best known for his song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." From there we move on to the "Civil Rights Suite" and conclude with a smattering of contemporary songs. (Or are they older songs in a rap mode? The acoustics in the Grandel sometimes can be unforgiving.)
The title can be interpreted in any number of ways, both literal and figurative. At the outset, the shackled slaves are crossing from one continent to another. Once here, they cross over the Mason-Dixon line and migrate to northern cities. New generations are able to see the most egregious forms of segregation come to an end as America crosses over to a nation that is more receptive to integration. Although the production's 60-plus songs evolve from sacred to secular, the through-line here is to be found in the welcome familiarity of spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Amazing Grace," inspirational music that has sustained souls for as long as these songs have been passed down through the generations.
The evening itself is an act of faith, in that nothing is allowed to distract from the music. Jim Burwinkel's set is a simple affair: The main piece is a raised platform that can serve as the deck of a ship or a slave auction block. Lighting designer John Wylie has scores of instruments at his disposal, yet apart from one spooky lighting effect in the hold of the slave ship nothing calls attention to itself. Wylie's focused goal is to shed light on the music. The ensemble consists of seven performers. J. Samuel Davis, Chuck Flowers, Herman Gordon, Karen Hylton, Kelvin Roston Jr, Leah Stewart and Willena Vaughn are all seasoned veterans of such recent Black Rep musicals as Dreamgirls, Damn Yankees! and Caroline, or Change. While each is given his or her moment Hylton's rendition of "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian," sung as an internal struggle to believe, was especially moving Crossin' Over is not a showcase. Personalities are mostly subservient to the music. Everyone, that is, except Ryan Cunningham, who doesn't seem to sing at all. He's here to perform frenzied movements so high-energy, they pull attention away from the energy being expended by the cast.
Speaking of high-energy, the four-piece band under the direction of musical director Charles Creath is relentless, because the music never stops. Sometimes that's good; sometimes it's not. At the performance I attended, initially when the audience tried to applaud a song, the music would play on, somewhat like a slap in the face. Eventually they quit trying. It's nice when a show has something to say, but it's even nicer when an audience feels that its participation is valued.